The realms of magic, religion and science appear to have been entangled if one analyzes the ancient or primitive worlds of mankind. If someone is bold enough to attempt to define each of the terms, one may find that certain events or actions may be applied to more than one of the definitions, which obviously causes problems in their distinctions. For example, Iroquois Indians would remedy scurvy with the bark of an Arbor tree.
In their social setting, a magical phenomena has occurred, yet, their remedy was later discovered to have happened because the tree contained Vitamin C, a nutrient that is deficient in a person suffering from scurvy.
A religious ritual may have been attached to as why the tree proves to be an effective remedy. Someone from a different indigenous tribe might claim it was a magical ritual and not religious. Westerners, on the other hand, would clearly disagree and hold that simple science has transpired.
Thus, in order to discuss magic, as this reflection will endeavour to do, it is very difficult to avoid examining religion and science as well.
The Scottish-born anthropologist James Frazer, in his famous work titled The Golden Bough, examines primitive cultures and their use of magic to gain a better comprehension of the origins of religion. He holds that “magic is a spurious system of natural law and a fallacious guide of conduct… [it] is a false science” (Frazer, 1). The primitive magician identifies magic as a practical conduct.
Frazer’s definitions of homoeopathic and contagious magic both state that magic relies on false assumptions, but these assumptions are only classified as being false because of his own ethnocentricity and previous beliefs regarding science.
It is for this reason that he classifies magic, specifically theoretical magic, as a “pseudo-science” (Frazer, 18). Frazer states that magic and science are closely linked. The defect in magic is not in the sequence of events determined by law, but rather “the nature of the laws which govern the sequence” (Frazer, 31).
According to this reasoning, magic must be considered false because the moment it becomes true, it turns out to be science. He defines religion as a changeable and wavering phenomenon of beliefs in higher powers that man attempts to please. Although magic and science believe in powers higher than man, they, on the other hand, are consistent and used for practical and personal purposes. Another anthropologist named Bronislaw Malinowski became captivated with James Frazer after reading The Golden Bough. Many of Malinowski’s theories are similar to those of Frazer, especially regarding magic.
Malinowski believes that magic gives man power over certain things, albeit nature and inanimate things. He holds that when man fears or desires something, they act differently and once balance is restored in the individual, she concludes it was the behaviour that brought about the balance. Similar to Frazer, Malinowski also holds that magic has definite and practical aim, is a pseudo-science and “is surround[ed] by strict conditions,” such as a spell (Malinowski, 85). He also states that magic is founded on a belief that hope cannot fail, a much overlooked characteristic which relates to its function within the society.
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